Successful COTA Forum in Austin proves the importance of fan engagement in F1

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AUSTIN, TX – Ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, fans who had made the journey to Austin were treated to a special forum with three top Formula 1 drivers as the importance of fan engagement to the sport was driven home.

Following the demise of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA) earlier this year, the fans appeared to be the biggest losers as the successful FOTA Forums that brought them closer to the drivers and personalities in F1 were lost.

However, for this weekend’s grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas, former FOTA general secretary Oliver Weingarten and the Grand Prix Investors Fund came together to hold an event at Gibson Guitar Texas.

At a packed venue, Felipe Massa, Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez faced questions from the fans, ranging from safety in F1 to their favorite circuits, and even what their favorite road car was. All three drivers were given a Gibson guitar by the venue, and took time to sign merchandise for the fans.

American driver Alexander Rossi also made an appearance at the event despite Marussia not racing in Austin, taking time to chat with fans and pose for pictures.

Perez and Gutierrez proved to be particularly popular at the forum, with a large contingency of Mexican fans making the trip over for the grand prix weekend. Unsurprisingly, questions about next year’s Mexican Grand Prix were met with great approval and chants of “Checo! Checo!” and “Guti! Guti!”.

The drivers also spoke of their love for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, which has already established itself as one of the best events on the calendar after just three years.

However, what was most evident about the event was how the fans embraced the opportunity to speak with their heroes and get to see them in a less formal setting. In the pressure of the F1 paddock, drivers can often have their personalities suppressed, yet the trio that appeared in Austin on Wednesday night were all immensely relaxed, sharing jokes with each other and the fans throughout the event.

Although Formula 1 may not focus on fan engagement as much as it perhaps should, events such as the COTA Forum are crucial to ensuring that the sport can bridge this gap more and give the fans something back.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.